The time to negotiate

In William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (act IV, scene III), there is a memorable passage that goes:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

As usual, Shakespeare captures well the sense of drama of arriving at some crossroads in one’s life where one can sense that one is on the cusp of events, where subsequent events can unfold in dramatically different directions depending on the decision one makes. Should we seize the moment and take the chance of achieving great success? Or do we, because we fear the consequences of failure, hold back and play safe and thus end up missing the chance for glory?

Part of the reason that quote has resonance with so many people is that we can all recall points in our lives when we were required to make an important decision quickly because events were moving rapidly. Should we go with the flow, take it at the flood, or should we hold back? The consequences of our decisions may not have been as momentous as the rise and fall of nations and armies, but they were important to us nonetheless.

The same holds true for the leaders of nations. It is easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and see where bad decisions made at momentous times have led nations and leaders astray. But at the same time, one can learn lessons from those failures. And the lesson that I draw is that the time to negotiate peace and grant concessions to your opponent is when your own side is very strong, your adversary is weak, and it looks like you can easily achieve an outright victory without conceding anything at all to those who oppose you. The more you seem to be invincible, the more you should be willing to negotiate.

But unfortunately, the temptation is strong for those leaders who see themselves as invincible to do just the opposite, to dismiss talk of negotiations and try to achieve a crushing victory. And in doing so, they often fail and in subsequent negotiations have to concede a lot more than they would have had to do earlier.

In Sri Lanka, for example, with its long running ethnic conflict, the older generation of leaders of the Tamil minority were asking mostly for a weak form of federalism for the country, with some form of regional autonomy and equal standing for their language along with the language of the majority. But at that time, the majority Sinhala community had all the power both legislatively and militarily and thus did not feel the need to concede anything significant. When a nascent Tamil insurgency subsequently appeared as a result of the breakdown in the political process, the government still felt it could crush it militarily. But by trying to impose their will by force, they bred an even stronger Tamil insurgency that is now paralyzing much of the country and has fought the government forces to a standstill. In any future peace deal, if it hopes to end the conflict, the majority Sinhala government will have to concede a lot more now than it would have had to do thirty years ago.

The same thing applies to US actions in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran. Before the US invaded Afghanistan because of the presence of al Qaeda there, the government of that country tried to negotiate with the US about how to deal with the al Qaeda in their midst but these offers were brushed aside seemingly because the US felt (correctly) that it could easily overthrow the Taliban government militarily. Thus they felt no need to engage in negotiations.

But now the tide has turned and the Taliban is coming back with a vengeance. Now it is apparent to all that the US and NATO forces are stretched thin in that country and are barely hanging on. The recent NATO summit in Latvia could not even drum pledges of support for the 1,000 more troops that the NATO commanders on the ground have been pleading for for months.

It is not unthinkable that the US will soon have to negotiate with the Taliban in the near future. In fact, just last week, the Pakistan Foreign Minister (and Pakistan is the country most intimately involved with Afghanistan and thus most likely to know the true state of affairs there) stunned some NATO foreign ministers by suggesting that “the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan and Nato is bound to fail.” He further went on to urge “Nato countries to accept the Taliban and work towards a new coalition government in Kabul that might exclude the Afghan president Hamid Karzai.”

It is becoming increasingly likely that the final resolution of the situation in that country will be on much weaker terms for the US than it might have achieved before the invasion or even just after, when the US was perceived as being strong.

The same thing applies to Iraq. Before that country was invaded, the US was perceived to be strong. Iraq had been weakened by years of harsh sanctions, the UN inspectors had access to that country, and Iraq was no threat at all to anyone. But then the US made the decision to invade, despite the efforts of that country to negotiate to avoid war, and the result is plain to see. US troops in Iraq are now stuck in the middle of events they no longer control and it is not hard to see that the eventual end result in that country is far worse than what might have been achieved by negotiating instead of invading.

Then take the case of Iran. Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, the Iranian government offered to negotiate with the US, in which they were willing to lay everything on the table. Clearly they were concerned about US strength and the possibility of being the next on the list of the ‘axis of evil’ countries to be invaded. But those overtures were brushed aside. Now the tables have turned. With the US forces stuck in Iraq, it is Iran that is in a position of strength and it is the US that will have to initiate talks with them, and ask them for help is solving the Iraq mess. The US will go into these talks in a much weaker negotiating position than it could have had just three years ago. All Iran has to do is watch from the sidelines while the US position gets weaker by the day.

The same holds true for the Israel-Palestine situation. There was a time when Israel seemed invincible in that region and could have negotiated from a position of strength for a two-state solution that would have included complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and the internationalization of Jerusalem, in return for full recognition and peace treaties with all its neighbors, a viable Palestinian state, and Palestinian acceptance that their refugees relinquish their right to return to their homes within Israel that were annexed when Israel was created.

But instead Israel used their military strength to build more illegal settlements in the occupied territories, trying to create a fait accompli that precludes a two state solution. Like in Sri Lanka, the lack of progress in the political front has led to the creation of a militant alternative. Recent events with the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have shattered the myth of Israeli military invincibility and if history is any guide, the powerful sense of injustice and resentment fed by the occupation will breed an increasingly strong resistance to Israeli occupation. Although the power relationships have not been reversed in that situation and Israel is still very powerful militarily, the perception of the balance of power has undoubtedly begun to shift away from Israel.

The lessons seem to be clear. The time to seek negotiations and make deals is when you are strong or perceived as being strong. But alas, it is precisely at moments of such strength that leaders fall for the temptation of thinking that outright military victory can be grasped. And while some kind of military victory can be achieved by the stonger power in the short run, when dealing with peoples and nations which harbor a deep sense of injustice, such victories often turn out to be Pyrrhic, bringing eventual ruin to the victor.

The passage from Julius Caesar which started this essay actually has the speaker urging going for total victory because of perceived military superiority. On the eve of a climactic battle against Mark Antony and Octavius, it is Brutus who says to his ally Cassius:

Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe:
The enemy increaseth every day;
We, at the height, are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

I can well imagine that the neoconservative advocates of immediately going to war with Iran might find in these words a stirring affirmation of their strategy of invading one country after the next while the US still clings to the remnants of its reputation of strength. But we must remember that Brutus, the person who spoke those resounding words and went for military victory, was ultimately overextended and defeated.

What should be ‘taken at the flood’ is the decision to talk and negotiate a just peace. Otherwise we too risk defeat at the next Philippi.

POST SCRIPT: Real table tennis

Most people in the US think of table tennis as a casual game, going to the extent of giving it the childish name of ping pong. But take a look at the game when played by real experts.

I saw the Chinese national team play in Sri Lanka when I was in college. Our own national team was hopelessly outclassed and only scored points because of the graciousness of the Chinese players who did not want to humiliate their host opponents. But the Chinese team also played exhibition games amongst themselves, like the one in the video, and they completely blew everyone away with their skill, technique, and amazing reflexes.

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